Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » By Sail — By Rail — By Trail

By Sail — By Rail — By Trail

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 19, 2008

The Saints who gathered to Deseret, especially those who came from Europe and Asia, had the “pleasure” of experiencing all the major transportation forms of the 19th century: sailing vessel, rail travel, and animal-drawn wagon. Improvements in the system over time – the switch from sail to steam for the ocean crossing, the stationing of emigration agents to smooth the arrival in the U.S. and the transfer to the railroads, and the eventual completion of the transcontinental railroad – made travel safer and more comfortable, but never entirely eliminated the dangers.

In all the research I have done, I have found only one set of letters describing the three phases of travel from the pen of one writer. Zebulon Jacobs (1842-1914) was the son of Henry Jacobs and Zina Huntington (later one of the Mrs. Brigham Young). He completed a mission to Great Britain in 1868, and escorted a company of more than 500 from Liverpool to Salt Lake City that summer.

Jacobs wrote from shipboard as his company awaited permission to disembark at Castle Garden (the “Ellis Island” of the Mormon immigration period) [spelling and punctuation standardized]:

On the 29th of June the greater portion of the Saints embarked … Amid the hurry and confusion accompanying such occasions, we managed to get stowed away pretty comfortable, considering so many being hurriedly collected together from various parts of Great Britain and a few from Italy. … Our hearts filled with joy and gladness to our Heavenly Father for our deliverance from Old Babylon. As soon as we could, we divided our portion of the ship into four districts, over which we placed Elders. … The districts were divided into eleven wards, over which responsible men [were] placed to look after them in every respect. … Our hours of prayer [were] 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.

It took us a day or two to get straightened up, when we found that we had plenty of room to make us comfortable, and a little spare had it been needed. The first two days, there was very little sickness. The third day, the swell made the ship rock a little more than usual … for the next three days, the tables looked quite deserted, after which the Saints began to get used to “a life on the Ocean wave.” … The rest of us enjoyed it the best we could, which is the custom of the Latter-day Saints, to make the best of everything that comes along so that we are continually happy. The spirit of peace and oneness has been with us continually. … Those who have been ill are now fast recovering. The Captain and officers have done all they could to make us comfortable, and the time to pass agreeable. They were very kind to the sick, and gave what comforts were needed to nourish them. The provisions are much better than I expected to find them; the water has been good and refreshing all the way. …

On the 7th, we had the pleasure of seeing three large Icebergs, which looked grand.

The company landed at New York City, and with the help of the elders and the local emigration agent, they transferred to rail cars to cross the United States toward the frontier. The train should have been the easiest part of their travel – they were free from the risks of ocean travel (storm, bad water, contagion in close quarters, collision with icebergs), and they were riding behind steam instead of walking beside cattle as they would do once they reached the frontier.

But the rail leg of their travel turned out to be the most deadly. Writing from the frontier, Jacobs reports:

We arrived at New York … went up the River to the Hudson River Depot … [and] started west on the morning of the 14th. About noon we arrived at Albany (which will be long remembered by all of us). While removing from the cars to the station, [a] distance of about 150 yards, to wait for the train to be made up in the afternoon, quite a number were sunstruck. The heat was such as I never witnessed before. …

A sister by the name of Mary Watson died, through the effects of the heat. She had been ailing for some time, but in the morning appeared as well as usual. She was left at Albany, arrangements being made for her burial.

At 4:30 we started. About 5:30 the people began to get worse. 6:30, a Brother James Caldwell, aged 70, died through sunstroke.

At about 8 p.m. our hearts were made sad by the death of Elder Ezra P. Clark, who received his death stroke at Albany through the heat. He received every attention that we could give him, but to no purpose. Death had a firm hold of him and would not relax its grasp. He was anxious about the welfare of the people, and we think his ambition carried him beyond his strength – he was always found trying to make the saints comfortable, and his examples were worthy of imitation by any saint. His body was brought on to Fonda, Fulton County, New York, where Bro. Parry made arrangements for his burial. He was left in charge of the officers of the town with instructions how to proceed. …

At about 11 the same evening, a young sister named Margaret Boulton died, aged 19, through sunstroke. 11:30, Margaret Jones, aged 30 (a Welsh sister) also died, leaving a husband and five small children. These two Sisters’ bodies were left at Syracuse. …

It kept us busy attending to the sick. We were glad through the coolness of the night. The morning brought relief to the sufferers, which continued to mend. …

While at Omaha it seemed as though the powers of Hell were marshaled to stop our progress. The apostates and Josephites came flocking around, trying to turn the minds of the people. Not succeeding in that, the evil one took another tack. About an hour before starting, the people began to be taken sick, and uneasy. One Sister was sunstruck and died about 20 minutes after starting; her name was Harriet Woods. She was about 50 years of age, from London. She was left at the first Station west of Omaha, Bro. Parry making the arrangements for her burial. …

The saints are feeling well and anxiously looking forward to the time when they can behold the land for which they have been praying and laboring, for so many years.

The train finally reached its western railhead at Laramie, Wyoming. There the company transferred from the railroad to the ox-drawn wagons that had been sent out from Utah to bring them across the remainder of the Plains. The company was overtaken by faster-moving travelers, and Jacobs sent another letter to describe their wagon travel to that point.

I am happy to say the health of the saints is as good as could be expected. … One or two of the sisters are pretty low through old age but are getting very well, considering. At Green River we left Bro. J.J. Jeans who had been ill for several days with something like the pleurisy, as it was dangerous for him to travel. His wife stopp[ed] with him. …

While fording the Platte, one of the young brethren, by the name of James Powell (age 18) went too far down the riffle, which was contrary to the Captain’s orders, the water being rapid. He stepped on a stone (so they say, that saw him fall) and fell, the current taking him into deep water before any assistance could be rendered by those on the bank or the edge of the water. His body was searched after, but could not be found. …

The Saints are feeling well and so far have enjoyed their journey across the plains. We all feel to thank the Lord for his preserving care, which He has had over us through our journeying, in bringing us safe thus far towards our mountain home, for which we feel to praise His name continually.

[The “sail/rail/trail” formulation is borrowed from Fred Woods of BYU.]



  1. When I first read this, it struck me as odd that walking 150 yards, even in the brightest and hottest sun, could cause someone’s death. Then I read more closely and realized that they were in the sun for over four hours.

    Sunstroke and heat exhaustion are dangerous. I’ve spent 25 years serving mostly in the YM organization, and have been on hundreds of campouts, outings, youth conferences, etc. There have been two close calls, and I have learned the importance of making sure that people have shade, and that they drink lots of water. I imagine those people who died waiting for the train in Albany were just sitting on their luggage on the platform, unsheltered, with little to drink.

    On a lighter note, I have a friend whose family converted to the restoration in the 70s in New Jersey and later moved to Utah. He says they knew the gospel was true all along, they were just waiting for the invention of interstate highways and air conditioning before making the trek to Zion.

    Comment by Mark IV — June 19, 2008 @ 8:00 am

  2. Very interesting.

    I’m sort of surprised that there aren’t more “complete sets” of personal travel letters.

    I am aware of at least two other instances of heatstroke deaths on trains (not counting Holocaust/Gulag-type indirect murder), but I’ve never seen a comprehensive analysis. I wonder how many people overall died from it? I wonder if they had enough drinking water in those un-air-conditioned cars before they sat in the sun all afternoon.

    Comment by Edje — June 19, 2008 @ 8:33 am

  3. Mark, I like the way your friend thinks.

    One of the formal assignments of the elders who were tasked with shepherding emigrant companies by train (once the system was established, at least; maybe not this early) was to see that adequate fresh water was taken aboard each car. What “adequate” means, or what they could do about it if water wasn’t available, I have no idea.

    There are historians who study the ocean crossing and others who focus on the plains travel. I don’t know anyone who is making a real study of the rail portion, to memorialize those who didn’t make it all the way. I’ll bet there are descendants of some of those named in this letter who don’t know what happened to their ancestors or where they were buried, and I’m looking forward to hearing from somebody someday who solved a longstanding mystery after Googling this post.

    Can you imagine what it would be like for your last sight of a loved one to be wrapped up and lying on a train platform, unburied? The train had to go on, and they had to trust to the goodwill of strangers to see that their mother or brother was buried decently in a graveyard they would probably never visit.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 19, 2008 @ 9:00 am

  4. One minor point: it’s Castle Garden–no s.

    A brief description of the site can be found here.

    Some more photographs of Castle Garden and a short history of immigrant processing in New York can be found here.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 19, 2008 @ 10:38 am

  5. I think I must have begged in the pre-Earth life to be able to come to Earth during the time of air conditioning. Those poor people.

    Comment by Jami — June 19, 2008 @ 10:52 am

  6. Thanks, Mark; I’ve fixed the spelling. Thanks for the links, too. Castle Garden and its officials figure into so many Mormon immigrant stories as either a hero or villain, and I need to learn more about it.

    Jami, I’m with you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 19, 2008 @ 11:36 am

  7. I tend to get peevish about all the press that Ellis Island gets, as if nobody got here who didn’t come through that place.

    It may have something to do with it being a visible symbol, made more so by the great work done in restoring it and making it an immigration museum, whereas Castle Clinton is a sandstone doughnut in the middle of Battery Park that for the first 50 years after Ellis Island took over was the New York Aquarium (thanks to Robert Moses for shutting that down) and is now the ticket office for the Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty ferries.

    Or it may have to do with a large and vocal minority of New Yorkers (Southern Europeans–Italians, mostly and Eastern Europeans–including a lot of Jews) who in fact are descended from Ellis Island immigrants.

    All my ancestors arrived at least 40 years before Ellis Island opened up, and most of them arrived in New Orleans, not New York. So, take that Ellis Island.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 19, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  8. Ardis and Mark,
    There is an article, with pictures, about Castle Garden in THE NAUVOO JOURNAL, vol 10, number 1, spring 1998, “Castle Garden, the Emmigrant Receiving Station in New York Harbor,” by Don H. Smith. You can find a PDF copy at , under publications.

    Comment by Maurine — June 20, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  9. Thanks, Maurine. I’ll have to remember to link back to this in a couple of future posts I have planned for events that happened at Castle Garden.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 20, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

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